An Astonishing Vision of Chekhov’s “Seagull” at ACT

photo credit © LaRae Lobdell
The Seagull Project- Medallion- credit Chris Bennion
The Seagull Project-Credit Chris Bennion
The Seagull Project-Fanning- credit Chris Bennion

The cast of The Seagull (Photo: LaRae Lobdell)

John Bogar as Trigorin and Alexandra Tavares as Nina in The Seagull (Photo: Chris Bennion)

Alexandra Tavares as Nina and Brandon Simmons as Konstantin in The Seagull (Photo: Chris Bennion)

Julie Briskman as Arkadina, Peter Crook as Dorn, and Hannah Victoria Franklin as Masha in The Seagull (Photo: Chris Bennion)

photo credit © LaRae Lobdell thumbnail
The Seagull Project- Medallion- credit Chris Bennion thumbnail
The Seagull Project-Credit Chris Bennion thumbnail
The Seagull Project-Fanning- credit Chris Bennion thumbnail

There aren’t that many nearly-three-hour shows that I immediately want to see again; The Seagull (at ACT Theatre through February 10; tickets) makes that brief list one production longer. It’s unlike anything else you’re likely to see on Seattle stages in all of 2013. First, there is the sheer talent assembled to take on Chekhov’s 13 characters, and secondly there is the sheer time they’ve given themselves to develop their production: nine months.

No one but actors would be lunatic enough to devote that much time and energy to a single show — that’s why this production is the sole fruit of The Seagull Project, an ensemble that coalesced simply to perform Chekhov’s play. By rights, The Seagull should be as terrible as its 1896 opening night audience thought it was; it’s incredibly talky, with little concrete action taking place on stage. The inciting incident, as it were, is the performance of a “decadent” symbolist play. Everyone’s love is unrequited, to one extent or another. You learn — if you needed the reminder — that it is a drag getting old.

And yet…in the best hands, it’s genius. It’s a play that, in commenting constantly upon itself, teaches audiences how to watch it. Set in summer, its people get bored and restive and long to make definitive plans — to exit the frustratingly formless present and find themselves where things are happening.

Chekhov is foolhardy enough a playwright to elicit that restiveness from his audience, so that they can, too, share in the realization that the present is, as Eliot would later intone portentously, where the meaning is: “Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after.” He is also brilliant enough to show you, in his hall-of-mirrors way, that it’s not about being young or old. It’s the human condition.

John Langs gets this; his direction here is almost anti-direction (in the sense of pushing the scene toward this or that end). He lets his cast develop instead, like a photograph in a bath, relationships gradually coming into focus. That cast, having had nine months to steep, delivers performances unmarked by bravura, in terms of spectacle. Their play is as present as a cocktail party you’ve wandered into — as full of unspoken dynamics, half-smiles, chatter, and despair. They wear their natty suits and dresses (costume design by Doris Black) effortlessly, and move about Jennifer Zeyl’s restrained, wooden-planked stage, sparsely furnished, as if they grew up there.

Because so much is nuance, it’s hard to put your finger on at first, why this play feels that different. You have to be willing, as an audience member, to spread your attention to take in these firefly glimpses, to be patient enough for the characters to take shape before you in gestures and behavior. Then they can move you. When he’s performed well, Chekhov transports you to your emotional crisis as immediately as the yeasty scent of a bakery’s fresh bread takes you back to some Parisian quarter.

While not plotless (it’s tightly plotted, in its way, it’s just plot branching out on a fractal scale), The Seagull can be better taken as a spectrometer that measures the properties of fulfillment. Here you have a lightly-bearded, fishing-pole-toting John Bogar as Trigorin, the John Updike of his day, paired up with Julie Briskman, as middle-aged, fabulously dressed star of the stage Arkadina. Trigorin, who’s rueful about his fame and considers his writing an almost oppressive compulsive act, contrasts with Konstantin, played by Brandon J. Simmons as a fractured boychild/artiste. He’s the kind of person drawn to hyphenated activities like writer-director because they present the possibility of power over his mother Arkadina.

In a not unrelated circumstance, Konstantin is desperately in love with Nina (understandably, because she is played by Alexandra Tavares), the ingénue who mirrors Arkadina, just as Konstantin does Trigorin. I’ve always thought the classically-featured Tavares was born to play Chekhov; it’s tiresome to applaud someone for how they look, but “classical” is relevant because Chekhov wrote in several places of the nobility he saw in women dealing with feckless Russian men — that was his iconography. Similarly, Tavares illuminates herself.

Here, she acts acts the part of Nina perfectly, slightly over-enunciating and unselfconscious about her appraisal of everyone in the room, as naive about her own desires as of Trigorin’s. (Briskman’s Arkadina is the opposite of naive — her cajoling of Trigorin to drop Nina I’ve seen elsewhere as desperate submission, but Briskman shows you how she got Trigorin in the first place, by performing for him precisely the kind of woman he wants.)

Nina’s youth lasts for about an hour and forty-five minutes. When she reappears for the short final act, after the intermission, the battering from life she’s undergone is wrenching, but Simmons’ mercurial Konstantin, protesting he loves her still, can only offer her his resentful neediness. If Konstantin ever wanted to know Nina’s heart, Simmons makes clear, he’s almost entirely blinded now by the stunted, childish demands of his own.

Mark Jenkins is Sorin, a stay-at-home country-estate owner, unvisited by a Frank Capra angel sent to explain his life’s meaning to him, and his stewing over time gone by is balanced by Peter Crook’s forward-thinking, stately Dr. Dorn, who has as well spent his life in service but seems at peace with his years, and is open enough to be stirred by Konstantin’s avant-garde efforts. What makes Chekhov Chekhov, though, is that as orderly as this critical recitation sounds, it leaves out the way Sorin sticks up for his nephew Konstantin, it doesn’t discuss the extent to which Sorin’s stewing is related to his physical decline. Be warned that if you have ever loved anyone near the end of his or her life, Jenkins’ fearless portrayal of Sorin will wreck you.

Even the “smaller” characters are given big lives: distinctive, complex, lived-in performances come from Julie Jameson as Polina, who’s married to the estate’s overseer, Shamraev, played by John Abramson, who marvelously captures that character’s yearning in his tic-like references to stars of the past he’s seen. (Because this is Russia, they’re actors and singers — in the U.S., he’d be an encyclopedia of former sports legends, always elbowing you about that time he saw Unitas play against Tennessee.)

Polina, of course, loves the doctor. Her daughter, Masha, played by the formidable Hannah Victoria Franklin, unrequitedly loves Konstantin. She’s angry at everyone and at herself, and Franklin has her guzzling vodka, snorting snuff, and slicing off her unwanted beau’s testicles (metaphorically: Langs lets her get away with a little too much unconventional mannerism but not that) with a lacerating “Really.” That unfortunate man is the school teacher Medvedenko (the lanky, stubbornly placid CT Doescher, delivering one of my favorite performances). Tyler Polumsky, Noah Duffy, and Lindsey Leonard are Yakov and the Servants, providing musical accompaniment as well as performing their household chores.

There is a seagull, and it is a symbol. Konstantin shoots it, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and tries to give it to a Trigorin-and-escape besotted Nina. Nothing lives in Konstantin’s writing, either; it’s all dead on the page. Nina comes to think she is that seagull (it reappears stuffed though, and she is hungry), though if so, it was Trigorin who shot her from the sky, idly. If the play works its magic (assisted by the subtle lighting, dappling in a summer afternoon, pale in winter, by Andrew D. Smith, and the almost subconsciously-generated sound design of Robertson Witmer), you’ll feel the stifling heat of cricket-buzzing summer day. Maybe a half-heard, Russian-sounding tune of Witmer’s will get you there. Bored, you wanted to be anywhere else. By winter, it’s all you can think about.